Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.11

Béatrice Muller, Maquettes antiques d’Orient: de l’image d’architecture au symbole. Antiqua.   Paris:  Éditions Picard, 2016.  Pp. 296.  ISBN 9782708410121.  €49.00.  

Reviewed by Fabio Porzia, Université de Toulouse 2 – Jean Jaurès (

The optimistic view of Processual Archaeology as accessing cognitive elements in ancient societies can be seen as a contribution to the “material turn” at the end of the twentieth century, in which objects, and material culture in general, are unanimously understood as active elements in daily life. In this context, along with the well-explored field of coroplastics, the so-called “architectural models” from the ancient Near East merit greater understanding and a more active role in the study of this region, not just as a miniaturisation of actual architecture or architectural elements known through archaeology or texts.

Taking over the line of research initiated in the 1970s by her professor Jean-Claude Margueron, Béatrice Muller has without doubt become one of the best specialists on this class of objects. The present book is indeed the most recent study in a considerable body of her work on this topic, which can only be summarised here with the conference organised in Strasbourg in 1998 entirely dedicated to architectural models1 and her PhD dissertation published in two volumes, including an extensive catalogue, in 2002.2

Architectural models are a very large class of artefacts, mainly made of clay, found throughout the Near East over the longue durée. They reproduce either a few architectural elements from a building, an entire domestic, public or cult building, or repeated groups of elements giving the impression of a larger complex (perhaps even an entire city as proposed for the Tonhäuschen from Assur). Moreover, these objects are sometimes inhabited by or decorated with human or divine figures and/or natural elements (mostly animals or plants).

Combining the archaeological approach (analysis of stratigraphy, context, typology, production, etc.) with the study of iconography and architecture, Muller offers an overall presentation of the topic covering the entire ancient Near East (Aegean world and Egypt included) from the Neolithic to the Classical age, and to identify the general trends in this class of artefacts (p. 23). After a methodological introduction giving the geographical and chronological frameworks and a short history of research, the volume is divided into seven chapters followed by a conclusion summarising the main results. Chapter 1 is a sort of pars destruens where concepts such as model, miniature, image, and souvenir, often used to understand these objects, are reconsidered. Chapter 2 presents elements for a general typology, insisting on oppositions such as circular/round base, open/closed and empty/inhabited space, and the existence of windows and/or door or not. Next, the author introduces more complex volumes, composite objects, or objects representing isolated architectural elements. This chapter shows the broad spectrum of possibilities craftsmen had to reproduce spaces and not just architecture. Yet the typology given here is superseded by a more precise typology at the beginning of Chapter 4 (even though less detailed than the one in the main publication of 2002). Chapter 3 studies the production of these objects from the double perspective of the craftsman and the commissioner, even though the latter is limited to half a page (p. 97). The materials and the production techniques are also analysed, with special attention given to aesthetic concerns and the use of colour. The next three chapters are devoted to her main theses and thus constitute the pars construens of the book. Despite the current term “architectural models”, these structures do not really correspond to the architectural evidence. In fact, correspondences do exist for details or single architectural elements, but not for the artefact as a whole: these objects are a synecdoche of ancient architecture and not a snapshot (Chapter 4). The actual use for these objects is usually connected to religion, both official and popular, since they were employed for cult purposes (such as libations or as offering tables), as ex voto offerings in cult places, or as symbols ensuring divine protection in funerary contexts (Chapter 5). In the broader context of the “material turn”, these objects are not considered as mere reflections, reproductions, or imitations of existing buildings, but as a repertoire of features and symbols that enlivened the imagination of the craftsmen who created them and who could adapt the object’s morphology and decoration to the required use (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 traces the general patterns of this class of objects, considering the different geographical contexts and concentrating on the examples from the third millennium BCE to the first half of the first millennium BCE, the decline of certain types or the emergence of others (such as shrines/tabernacles during the Iron Age), the changes in singular architectural elements, and the connections with religious practices and beliefs in these periods.

With 180 black and white figures throughout the text and a section of 24 colour plates included after the introduction, images have a pivotal role in this book. Moreover, in the appendices, six tables present the main typologies of these “architectural models” (shrines [édicules], tabernacles with figurative elements, towers, multiple-story houses, open-top models, and multiple-windowed houses) organised by chronology and geography, all using the same scale. These tables are particularly useful since they concentrate 208 objects in a few pages, and allow us to appreciate at a glance the variety and the distribution of these artefacts. Other useful corollaries are two tables presenting the contexts and the functions of these objects according to the archaeological sites, two lists of the objects presented, one organised according to their archaeological origin and one for those from the antiquities market, as well as a glossary, maps, an index, and the list of iconographic sources.

The main theses, while not really new compared to Muller’s previous publications, are largely accepted and constitute the basis from which any study on architectural models should start. For this reason, only a few criticisms can be noticed:

(1) Broad audience orientation: while the goal was to present architectural models to non-specialists as well, some paragraphs are too short or generic to serve as an effective introduction. Sometimes also the text focuses on a few models rather than offering a broad description of the class to which they belong. A theoretical framework explaining the context in which this class of artefacts should be understood would also have been useful.

(2) New data: as an update and broadening of her PhD dissertation, this book could have included some of the recently discovered models, especially from the Levantine area,3 instead of being limited to the repository pit of Yavneh. Furthermore, the Egyptian evidence is only partially covered, while the Anatolian ones have been deliberately excluded.

(3) Typology: as with all attempts at typology, a few comments can be made. For example, I would question whether the distinction between shrine and tabernacle is possible on the basis of the lack of windows, and whether the presence or the absence of a figurine (anthropomorphic or not) is always a decisive element, since a figurine made of other materials could be put inside the clay abode. Also, the typology of open-top models seems too vague, since it includes both open places such as gardens and closed spaces whose roof/cover has been removed.

(4) The use of the Bible and iconography, a subject that has recently been reexamined.4 Some of Muller’s arguments and examples need to be reconsidered in light of these studies, such as the iconography of the “woman at the window” and the problem of cult prostitution in the Bible (pp. 204-205) as well as some interpretations of the biblical text or the Yahwistic religion in general. Moreover, some examples are misleading. For instance, concerning the representation of YHWH, Muller correctly evokes the typical representations of the bull or the calf, but she brings examples form Ta‘anak and Yavneh (p. 234). Now, the geographic continuity between these sites and the Israelite area should not be taken as a direct proof of the iconography of YHWH. For the first site, we do not actually know to which divinity/divinities the iconographies are related, while we do know that the second site has nothing to do with Yahwistic religion since it is a Philistine settlement. Furthermore, sometimes the description of the Near Eastern world refers solely to the Bible, such as for the figure of the roi bâtisseur (pp. 60-62) and hierogamy (p. 233), instead of enlarging the perspective. In other words, just as architectural models should not be considered as prototypes for recreating ancient Near Eastern architecture, the Bible should not be the source par excellence supporting one’s hypothesis. The Bible is more than that, or less than that, depending on one’s expectations.

(5) Text: a few errors can be detected such as in the spelling or the transcription of foreign terms that should be consistent (such as naiskos or naïskos). More disturbing are the recurrent errors in the cross-references, especially concerning the figures and the plates.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that the ambiguity of “architectural models” also exists in language, since, for example, the common word “house” (byt in Semitic languages) can refer to both an ordinary domestic building or the temple of the gods. Muller’s book shows that sometimes archaeologists and philologists share the same hermeneutic problems, which can be solved thanks to the context.

Notwithstanding these comments, the main value of this book is in offering the first manual entirely dedicated to the topic. Architectural models, understood as “objects-images” (p. 56) or “polysemic objects” (p. 213), continue to raise a broad spectrum of questions and constitute a fascinating field of study, continuously nourished by new findings and bringing together different disciplines. I hope that this publication will encourage further studies, including petrographic and colour analysis or morphologic comparison between these objects and other ceramic forms, as the excavators of Yavneh did. For all these reasons and to ensure an even wider circulation, these studies should be made available in English.


1.   B. Muller, « Maquettes architecturales » de l’Antiquité. Regards croisés (Proche-Orient, Égypte, Chypre, bassin égéen et Grèce, du Néolithique à l’époque hellénistique) (Paris 2001).
2.   B. Muller, Les « maquettes architecturales » du Proche-Orient ancien : Mésopotamie, Syrie, Palestine du IIIe au milieu du Ier millénaire av. J.-C. (Beirut 2002).
3.   For example from M. Daviau, “Ceramic Architectural Models from Transjordan and the Syrian Tradition”, in H. Küne et al. (eds.), Proceedings of the 4th International Congress of the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (Wiesbaden 2008), vol. I, p. 293-308; A. M. Maeir – M. Dayagi-Mendels, “An Elaborately Decorated Clay Model Shrine from the Moussaeiff Collection”, in S. Bickel et al. (eds.), Bilder Als Quellen/Images as Sources: Studies on Ancient Near Eastern Artefacts and the Bible Inspired by the Work of Othmar Keel (Fribourg 2007), p. 111-123; M. Nissinen – S. Münger, “Down the river: a shrine model from Tel Kinrot in its context”, in E. Kaptijn – L.P. Petit (eds.), A timeless vale: archaeological and related essays on the Jordan Valley in honour of Gerrit van der Kooij on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday (Leiden 2009), p. 129-144.
4.   To quote just the latest title, I. de Hulster et al. (eds.), Iconographic Exegesis of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: An Introduction to Its Method and Practice (Göttingen 2015).

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